Family honors recipes, women behind them.
While many women set out to shop the day after Thanksgiving, the women in Laurel Nelson’s family head to the kitchen. It is a day of celebration of food, family and traditions. It is “Bake Day!”
On Nov. 23, the family came together for the 16th annual Bake Day, a tradition started by Laurel to preserve the memories of the women who her family loved and their heritage in food. Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends all gather on this day to create a living legacy of the women that came before them. These women were strong women who often had very little but gave a lot of themselves. They showed the love of their family through food.
“They did not have crystal and china to pass on to us. Our inheritance was the food they made and how it tasted.” Laurel said.
The women of Laurel’s generation and some of her mother’s did not know how to make the Norwegian foods that their grandmothers had made. Each woman had the handwritten recipes from these women, which were passed down to them. Bake Day is a day of wonderful fun of preparing the recipes, whether they turned out or not.
“Some of the attempts to make recipes were a total flop. Some were inedible,” she said. “Those of us that remembered what Grandma’s baking tasted like would comment that it just didn’t taste quite right. We followed the recipes using lard, sweet cream and butter, but sometimes it wasn’t quite the same, so we keep experimenting until we get it right.”
Bake Day starts with a tea at 1 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving. There is no Black Friday shopping, and no one is on a diet that day. All the women gather around one table to talk and enjoy each other’s company. By 2 p.m. the baking begins. Groups are formed with at least two generations of experts, sometimes three, and someone who wants to learn how to make a special Norwegian treat. Laurel’s mother, Coretta Evanson, along with Laurel’s aunts, Eileen Meslow, Muriel Odin and Carol Prijatel, were the first experts.
Baking supplies for the day include five pounds of butter, five quarts of cream, 20 pounds of flour and 10 pounds of sugar, along with other ingredients. Sometimes people bring their own bowls and special ingredients. With the measuring, mixing, special preparations and baking is the passing on of the oral history of the women who made the recipes.
Then at 5 p.m. the men start coming and help prepare the evening meal. By 7 p.m. there is a beautifully laden table of delectable desserts that is ready for the yearly photo.
“Every year we know it is the best that we have ever done.” Laurel said.
Then there is the themed gift exchange.
“One year it will be bowls or aprons that everyone exchanges,” she said. It is a memory of the day.
This year there were 14 bakers with about 35 for the evening meal. They ranged in age from 3 to 81. They ate Sweet Soup made by Laurel’s uncle, Eugene Meslow, who has been maintaining the tradition of making it on Bake Day. In the past Laurel’s mother, who has passed on, had been the expert of Sweet Soup. This year they made lefse, rosettes, krumkake, jun brod, rommegrot, divinity, donuts, sand bakkels, fattigmand, kringla, date cookies, rolled sugar cookies, gingerbread men and anise candy.
Laurel’s earliest memories of baking were with her grandmother.
“I would go over to my grandmother’s house, and she would start cooking early in the morning, and as soon as she had cleaned up from one meal it was time to start the next one. Grandma would gather the eggs and separate the cream from the milk then cook and bake with them. She was a wonderful cook. She cooked with a wood stove with a reservoir on the back to heat the water. Grandma did not have an electric mixer; she had to beat things by hand. She would make the highest angel food cake and apologize that it wasn’t high enough. I couldn’t get it that high using my Kitchen Aid mixer. Grandma never acted like cooking was a burden. It was her work of art. She created gifts of her food. We would get a tub of donuts from her at Christmas time and us kids would devour them not knowing what a truly wonderful gift it was. It was a tradition to give food as a gift because that was what she had, and it was given with love.”
One of her grandmother’s most requested desserts, given as a gift, was sour cream raisin pie.
When Laurel grew up they did not have running water or working indoor plumbing until 1961. Her father would bring in two big milk cans of water daily to be used for everything. They did have an electric stove to cook and bake with. Her parents farmed with her paternal grandparents on the same farm, and her other grandparents lived 25 miles away. They had cows, chickens and pigs on their farm. Both of her grandmothers were wonderful cooks. The kitchen was where people gathered and talked. On her current farm they have horses, which the whole family enjoys.
In 2008, the idea of creating a cookbook from Bake Day started. Each person had their own recipes, but no one had all of them. It was so important to pass on the memories of the important women of Laurel’s family to the next generations. The vision was to include pictures of these women, their handwritten recipes, information about them and photos of the current experts.
“It was a lot of work that we finally finished in 2010. We found a great website that was free for us to create the book, and we could all be in it working at the same time from different locations. It was so much more work that what we anticipated,” Laurel said.
The book is so much more than recipes; it is really a history of the family through food. The book begins with the historical recipes and ends with Bake Day participants’ new favorite recipes and stories. She mailed a copy of their book to a relative living in Norway to show the history of what happened to her family after they left Norway.
If she was to choose one recipe out of the Bake Day book it would be rommegrot. Rommegrot is a like a vanilla pudding, served as a side dish with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon on it. It makes Laurel remember her mother. When she eats it she feels her mother’s love. That love is woven into the title of the book Bake Day, A Taste of Love.